Leah’s ARC Review of “On the Savage Side” by Tiffany McDaniel

By: Leah

Originally posted on Leah’s Books.

On the Savage Side

  • Author: Tiffany McDaniel
  • Genre: Mystery/Thriller
  • Publication Date: February 14, 2023
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group

Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf Publishing Group for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: addiction, mention of death of a parent, grief, graphic depictions of drug use, gore, violence, blood, child neglect, prostitution, sexual abuse, death, murder, harm to animals, torture

Plot Summary

Six women–mothers, daughters, sisters–gone missing. When the first is found floating dead in the river, it reveals the disturbing truth of a small Ohio town. Inspired by the unsolved murders of the Chillicothe Six, this harrowing and haunting novel tells the story of two sisters, both of whom could be the next victims, from the internationally-bestselling author of Betty.

Arcade and Daffodil are twin sisters born one minute apart. With their fiery red hair and thirst for an escape, they forge an unbreakable bond nurtured by both their grandmother’s stories and their imaginations. Together, they create a world where a patch of grass reveals an archaeologist’s dig, the smoke emerging from the local paper mill becomes the dust rising from wild horses galloping on the ground, and an abandoned 1950s convertible transforms into a time machine that can take them anywhere.

But the two sisters can’t escape the generational chaos that grips their family. Growing up in the shadow of the town, the sisters cling tight to one another. As an adult, Arcade wrestles with these memories of her life, just as a local woman is discovered drowned in the river. Soon, more bodies are found. While her friends disappear around her, Arcade is forced to reckon with the past while the killer circles ever closer. Arcade’s promise to keep herself and her sister safe becomes increasingly desperate while the powerful riptide of the savage side becomes more difficult to resist.

Drawing from the true story of women killed in her native Ohio, acclaimed novelist and poet Tiffany McDaniel has written a powerful literary testament and fearless elegy for missing women everywhere.

Overall Impression

From McDaniel’s other two books, I knew this one was going to be powerful, but I had no idea how hard this one was going to hit. And it scored a direct shot right to the feels, making me get attached to these women, even knowing what was going to happen. I found myself praying for a happy ending, even when I really didn’t think it was going to come, because that isn’t how McDaniel rolls.

If your life hasn’t been touched by addiction, it’s really easy to look down from a high horse. But when it has, this book hits completely differently. Arcade and Daffodil are twin sisters who are born into a life of chaos, with parents who are addicted to heroin. The story opens with their mother hanging up their father’s clothing in the windows after his overdose death. They live in a house with their mother and aunt, both of whom are addicted to heroin and support themselves through prostitution. The only stable spot in their life is their grandmother, who periodically takes custody of the girls, but relinquishes them back into their mother’s custody when she cleans up her act enough. However, it never sticks, and they’re subjected to neglect and wind up raising themselves.

You can already predict that this is going to set the stage for them to follow in the footsteps of their mother and aunt, and if you guessed that, you’d be right. Their life doesn’t improve, even though Daffy has an incredible talent for swimming and Arc expresses an interest in archaeology from a young age. We never see their mother or aunt encourage them to do anything positive with their talents, or even show them any love, affection, or even a tiny bit of care, and it’s heartbreaking. Reading about what the twins go through as children isn’t for the faint of heart, and the content warnings are rough—most of them are depicted pretty graphically and on-page, so beware before going into this of what you’re getting into.

Even with all of this, the story combines a feeling of claustrophobic and crushing despair and magical, flowery, lyrical writing. These women work to incorporate beauty into the ugliness of their daily lives, and despite everything happening around them, they cling to each other to develop the loving, family connections that they lack. I loved the bonds between the Chillicothe Queens, even as death is breathing down their necks, whether it’s from heroin or whoever is killing women in their town.

I found myself so invested in the stories of the women, even more so than discovering who was killing them. The tension amps up throughout the story, and it’s almost as if you can feel the net closing in around them, especially as the women in their circle start to disappear little by little. But what this story does most beautifully is painting them as individuals, rather than defining them by the choices they make. They’re each unique people with hopes, dreams, goals, and regrets, not simply addicts or prostitutes. That’s what they do, but it isn’t who they are underneath, and it’s just another part of the net that closes in around them.

This is a difficult read, but it’s extremely deep and powerful, and it has officially cemented McDaniel’s place as one of my favorite new authors. She’s one to watch, with a strong message and an incredible talent. If she isn’t on your radar, she should be.

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